In Sir Alex Fergusons 25 years in charge of Manchester Untied we have come to learn that he doesn’t tolerate poor performances, and certainly doesn’t tolerate a home defeat in front of an Old Trafford crowd. That’s when you had to fear for Newcastle last weekend. United are typically at their best on the back of a defeat and you could have bet your house that they would have been firing on all cylinders at St James Park last week. Of course, in pure United style, Sir Alex’ men produced a fantastic performance as they beat Newcastle 3-0, but as a United fan, as well as being pleased we bounced back, I was hugely encouraged by what was a very dynamic performance and a glimpse of what could be a new style of football at Old Trafford in the future.
The biggest concern for United fans over the last few years which has been discussed by many football blogs, has been how the creativity, control, seniority and experience of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs would be replaced. Without Scholes in particular, United have struggled to control games and his return to the team last season illustrated how much he was missed and how influential he is.
At the start of last season, we faced life without Scholes with Carrick and Anderson lining up in midfield. The two young midfielders have great qualities and are fantastic players, but for everything they gave to the team in energy and work ethic, the two lacked in experience, which meant they were less effective when playing alongside each other. Michael Carrick would steady the ship and provide that discipline when playing alongside one of the two, but it was clear that finding the right balance of creativity, experience and energy was proving a problem for United, and fortunately Scholes returned to action which has given Ferguson more time to adapt and make the transition into a new era. An era that we might have caught a glimpse of last Sunday.
To solve the problem that we have had in central midfield, it looks like Ferguson is gradually turning away from basing his teams on what has been the cornerstone of United’s success over the last 25 years… wing play. When you think back to the clubs most successful recent years of Giggs and Kanchelskis, to Giggs and Beckham, and then to the more recent Ronaldo, Nani, Valencia, and Young, wing play has been the basis of Ferguson’s team to allow for exciting, counter attacking, fast, free flowing football.
In recent Champions League news, United played a diamond formation against FC Cluj. With Anderson, Fletcher, Rooney and Carrick sitting behind Van Persie and Hernandez in attack. United won the game, and you could say it was a little experiment against weaker opposition that fortunately paid off.
Last Sunday however, the Diamond formation was back. Sir Alex was clearly pleased with what he considered to be their best performance of the season, and it could well be a turning point or more so a spring board in United’s season.
United lined up with Van Persie and Welbeck up top, with Rooney in behind them at the point of the diamond which was anchored by Carrick, with kagawa and Cleverly operating on the left and right sides. Again, no recognised out and out winger in the team as Young, Valencia and Nani sat in the stands. When I saw the team sheet, without and naturally wide players and without Scholes or Giggs, I did feel slightly uncomfortable and nervous. By the time it finished I felt more optimism than I have felt in a long time.
United had their swag back. They were playing with confidence and with that slight air of arrogance. With Rooney, Cleverly and Kagawa finding the pockets of space in midfield between the Newcastle lines, they were hard to get near. Every player wanted the ball, they were fluid and interlinking in possession while working hard and been disciplined out of possession. There passing was slick and they were cutting Newcastle apart with clever passes around corners.
Wayne Rooney in particular looked more comfortable in his deeper role. We all know he likes to drop deep and get involved in the build up, but in previous seasons he has had the pressure to get himself in the box to score the goals. Now he looks relaxed, he has a free role and looks like he is enjoying it, knowing that Welbeck and Van Persie are the ones who will be in the box to score goals. Kagawa and Cleverly are similarly clever players who like to drift around in the pockets and to create play. The three have licence to do this knowing that Carrick is sitting behind them. When you think back to the imbalance we have had in central midfield in the last few seasons, now we have creativity in abundance, energy in Cleverly and Rooney, and experience in Rooney and Carrick. They all looked to flourish in the system and they looked to enjoy their roles. Match all of this with the speed and power of our play, which makes up for the lack of width, and United look like they might have just found that magic formula that will bring the best out of their top players.
It will be interesting to see how Sir Alex approaches the next few games, if he sticks with this system and if it will be as effective as it was at St James Park. If it isn’t as effective then they can always revert to the tried and tested wing play, which has worked so well over the years, but I expect to see the diamond formation plenty more times at Old Trafford in the future.